Buying Bits

Posted on Sep 14, 2005

After mentioning electronic books the other day, a couple of people asked me if purchasing books electronically is something that I’d consider. In fact I’d already discussed this with Richard Cohen, who seems to have been buying books this way for years. Most of that conversation revolved around the fact that most ebooks sold today have some form of copy protection or DRM. The consequences of this are that it’s all to easy to end up with content that has been paid for that you cannot view.

Ignoring the copy protection/DRM issue (!), it’s worth considering the cost of ebooks. In the same conversation with Richard, I realised that I haven’t yet read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (note the price at Amazon: £4.36 plus delivery for a paperback). The Penguin site for the same book lists two ebook formats, the price for each being £11.56 (plus delivery I assume). In excess of twice the price!

Ignoring the price discrepancy, is it safe to spend a lot of money on bits? Consider Apple’s iTunes Music Store. It has all of the same DRM problems alluded to above (if not worse). It would be quite easy to spend £1000 in a year by purchasing a couple of albums each week. If I were very careful, it should be possible to ensure that I have a proper backup of the tunes. But what if my house burns down taking my originals and both backups with it? Will my insurance company give me the money to replace those tunes?

So, yes, I’d consider paying for ebooks. What I’d quite like to see is every paper book come with an electronic copy of the book as well, I might even consider paying a small premium for it. Mostly, I’m frightened of ending up with content that I can’t use, either because of some crazy consumer victimisation scheme or the normal ravages of time. Even if that weren’t the case, there are a host of other reasons to prefer paper in some circumstances (sitting in the bath is an important example!). Of course, bits that I buy aren’t the only place where losing them is a worry - the same applies to all of those digital photos I have stored on spinning media…